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Lakers vs. Rockets Preview: L.A. looks to scare Houston on Halloween night

Sunday’s game is another opportunity for the Lakers to climb up the standings and take advantage of this easy stretch on their schedule.

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Cleveland Cavaliers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

In the dying minutes of the fourth quarter vs. a young and competitive Cleveland Cavaliers team on Friday, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis were all smiles and glee while stationed at the bench. Not only did they just conclude their best performance as a trio yet, but they were also having fun celebrating a comfortable victory — something that hasn’t happened since the season began. Rather than clawing to secure a win, they were celebrating Dwight Howard knock down a 3-pointer in the closing seconds.

Friday’s game was an important and thrilling victory for the purple and gold, and it’s a result they’ll be hoping to replicate against another young team in the Houston Rockets on Sunday.

This Houston squad coming to town on Halloween night is currently on a three-game losing streak. The rebuilding team has only won once, and that was against the Oklahoma City Thunder — the same team that defeated and served the Lakers their first humble pie of the season. Houston has four rookies on their team, including this year’s No. 2 overall pick Jalen Green, and a bunch of veterans like Eric Gordon, D.J. Augustin, as well as a young rising talent in Christian Wood.

But while the Rockets won’t be a walk in the park, if the Lakers can manage to lessen Houston’s transition points (their main strategy on offense), take away their 3-point attempts and expose their defensive flaws, it should be another easy win for L.A. Another key for the Lakers is to make sure Wood (who currently leads the Rockets in points per game) does not turn into Shaquille O’Neal in the paint and Gordon (who is currently shooting at an impressive rate of 52.0% from three) does not go as Stephen Curry for Halloween.

Moreover, Sunday’s match is another opportunity for the Lakers to climb up the standings, take advantage of this easy stretch on their schedule, and just have fun playing the game.

In order for them to do all three, here’s what the team needs to continue to work on and be better at in this one.

The Lakers’ team defense

The Lakers are currently 25th in the league in defensive rating. They simply have to do better on that end of the floor, especially when it comes to their pick-and-roll, closeout, and perimeter coverages. Their opponents have found ways to frequently score through backdoor cuts, easy layups and from the 3-point line because the Lakers’ defense falls asleep often. Davis himself said after Friday’s game that the team has to do a better job of committing and executing their defense.

“Our scheme works. We just have to be committed to doing it, and that takes no energy and no effort to just commit to playing defense. It’s a mindset, like ‘OK, I’m going to play defense. And I’m going to do my job, and whatever my job is, if it leaves my guy open, I know the next guy is going to take the rotation to cover me, because I’m doing my job,’” Davis said. “That’s a trust thing, and we showed it tonight in the fourth quarter, but we’ve got to do it from the start.”

Head coach Frank Vogel also addressed the team’s early struggles on the defensive end to start the season, both in a pregame film session and postgame. Vogel understands that instilling a defensive identity to a team composed of 12 new members is going to take some time — he even compared it to building a house — but he’s confident that this Lakers team will get there especially if every single player buys in and works harder to understand and execute the coach’s masterful defensive scheme.

The team has had its fair share of powerful defensive runs so far this season, but the challenge for them is to do this consistently throughout the game so that their opponents don’t hang around. Luckily for the purple and gold, they’re about to face a Rockets team that averages more turnovers than them (yes, such a team actually exists) so it’s important they get enough steals and stops on Sunday.

Start third quarters right

The Lakers have been outscored (177-121) in third quarters over their first six games. They cannot continue to develop the habit of coming out flat to start the third period, and having to play catch up in the fourth quarter every time as a result. The good news is, they have an opportunity to change this on Sunday against a Rockets team that has trouble scoring (they’re currently ranked 25th in field goals made).

The goal for the Lakers is to keep Houston away from the foul line and force them to operate within their half court offense instead. If they do that, then there’s a good chance that Russ, Bron and AD spend the last quarter resting on the bench instead of playing significant minutes late in the game just to make up for the team’s overall poor third quarter performance.

A consistent winning mindset

If the Lakers did not collapse against the Thunder last Tuesday, they would be on a four-game winning streak right now. Their body language and mentality was what caused Tuesday’s embarrassing loss, which is why it’s so vital for them to bounce back and crush the Rockets from the get-go on Sunday.

Their mindset and performance in this game will be telling in terms of how they respond after a strong victory. Did they learn from their forgettable performance early this week, or do they need another young team to serve them a fresh slice of humble pie? This is something worth keeping an eye on.

It may only be six games into the season but it would be great if L.A. started to show some progress and consistency on both offense and defense on Sunday. Hopefully, the Lakers start this game with enough energy and execute their game correctly so they can call it a game early and get home for some Halloween celebrations. After all, the team and fans would rather see Dwight Howard shooting 3-pointers during garbage time than the Big 3 playing a ton of minutes and exhausting themselves this early in the season.

Notes and Updates

  • Trevor Ariza (right ankle injury recover), Talen Horton-Tucker (right thumb injury recovery) and Kendrick Nunn (right knee bone bruise) are all out on Sunday.
  • Wayne Ellington (left hamstring strain) and James (right ankle soreness) are listed as questionable. In a positive sign, however, James did say that his ankle feels a lot better after Friday’s game.
  • Anthony Davis (right knee soreness) is also probable for Sunday’s match, and Sekou Doumbouya and Jay Huff (two-way contracts) are with the South Bay Lakers for training camp.
  • Rockets wing Kevin Porter Jr. suffered an ankle injury in the second quarter vs. the Utah Jazz on Thursday. His status for Sunday’s game is uncertain, but he said at practice on Saturday that he hopes to play.
  • Elsewhere around the league, Kevin Durant of the Brooklyn Nets was fined $25,000 for throwing a basketball to the crowd during a game. Oops. Meanwhile, the injury bug continues to haunt the league, as Chicago Bulls’ Patrick Williams will be sidelined for the rest of the regular season due to a wrist injury.

The Lakers and Rockets will tip-off at 7:30 p.m. PT on Sunday. The game will only be televised locally on Spectrum SportsNet.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicoleganglani